As I sit sweltering at my desk, pretending to re-revise this pesky novel, the mind drifts like smoke back over my happy years living in a fire zone. I cast the eye about at the crispy kindling that is my zero-scaped yard and recall a couple years ago at this time, stuffing all fifty-two of my photo albums into my van in an attempt to save my past if not my future.
We live in a narrow box canyon with only one road in, and no other way out -- that is, unless you are a fire, in which case you can reach us from all sides.
One interesting thing about living in a canyon is that even if you live on the opposite side from the one that’s burning, you still feel very close and personally involved. I could, in fact hear the merry snap and camp-fire crackle from my kitchen.
Everyone crept outside and drifted together in the street to watch our hillside burn. There was talk of who smelled what when, evacuation, and mild disagreement about whether deer or lizard or bobcat could out-run the flames, and whether anything could burrow to safety under them.
The scene was bizarre not just because the neighbors were gathering, or because fire is alarming on a gut level, or because it smelled wrong, but because the scale seemed off. Trees looked like bushes, firefighters in silhouette looked like brave little toys, helicopters circled like hawks, and when the smoke shifted, the flames were way too enormous to be credible.
One old timer recalled our canyon ringed in fire in the 60’s when some guy, gambling on fate, made one-time-only, now-or-never offers to buy everyone’s houses. Ha!
I called my kids and asked which two or three of their possessions they’d most like to see again. That could have made for a whole evening of interesting conversation but by then the ash was falling like snow and the air was making me dangerously nostalgic for my smoking days. We agreed on the harp and a few guitars.
My husband came home to "help" me load van. "We" put our turtle in a soup pot, crammed the guinea pig and bunny into a small cage, and hoisted our big old dog up onto the seat.
On the way out the door, we took a last look at the house and our stuff. I was sorry about leaving some of the art, but felt surprisingly indifferent to the rest of my earthly accumulation.
We squeaked out just as they were blocking off the road. Any of our neighbors who came home after that had to leave their cars at the mouth of the canyon and hoof in to get pets, kids, papers, whatever.
We spent the night at a friend’s house in Eco Park and returned in the morning to our intact home. The hillside was revealed to be shaped like an elephant's head, although no one admitted to seeing it but me. The elephant was stubbly with blackened stumps like a five day beard, he smelled like an ashtray and looked strangely raw for several months.
This was an entirely unknown phenomena in Detroit where I grew up. Houses burned but just one at a time, mostly. Space heaters took several a year, Christmas trees, lightning, cigarettes and vandals took their share. Businesses burned as part of insurance scams, but it was rare that a Michigan arsonist got more than a few houses or apartments at a time.
So, this seasonal occurrence of multiple miles of flame took some getting used to.
Our modest little canyon fire burned maybe a square mile or less. A few weeks later a couple of miles north of us the Station Fire began it's two week rampage incinerating 251 square miles. That one made for fabulous on-going, high-drama viewing. Asthma or no, we’d park in the hospital lot with our fellow gawkers and sit on the roof of our cars, admiring the glorious billowing smoke patterns by day and the breathtaking flames by night.
And just this week, we’ve kicked off this year’s fire season with the Cajun Pass Fire, standing now at 1,150 acres burnt, two homes lost.
Wabbit season! Duck Season! Wabbit season! FIRE SEASON!